Monday, Dec 11, 2017
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Briggs

COMMENTARY

Rockets finally have a team to play for crown

Still work to do, but beating NIU washes away some past late season failures

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    Toledo's Jordan Fisher finds running room during Thursday's 27-17 win over Northern Illinois.

    The Blade/Kurt Steiss
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They gathered in the end zone to sing in the rain, the University of Toledo football team joining the band and students to celebrate the most cathartic win of their careers.

U of Toledo, we’ll fight for you

Fight! Fight! Fight!

SPT-UTFB2-15

Toledo's Jordan Fisher finds running room during Thursday's 27-17 win over Northern Illinois.

The Blade/Kurt Steiss
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Never had a downpour felt more cleansing.

Rather than wash away another Rockets season, the skies opened in the final minute of a 27-17 win Thursday against Northern Illinois that gave fans permission to let down their guard and start dreaming big.

In a showdown of the Mid-American Conference’s last two league unbeatens, the hometown team with the tortured November history at last delivered a big-game performance that matched the stakes.

A senior class out to redress so many years of late-season heartbreak made sure of it.

Logan Woodside tossed for 361 yards to pass Bruce Gradkowski as the school’s all-time passing leader, Terry Swanson dashed for three touchdowns, Trevon Mathis led a big-play defense with two interceptions, and, on this night, the other sneaker never dropped.

This was the performance of — believe it — a championship team.

Coach Jason Candle and the players went out of their way afterward to downplay the magnitude and symbolism of the victory. There remains work yet ahead for the Rockets to capture their first MAC West title since 2004. Toledo (8-1, 4-1) must win two of its three remaining games against against Ohio, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan to secure a berth in the league title contest.

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“I like to play golf, but when you’re 5-under after 13 holes, nobody cares if you don’t finish it,” Candle said. “You’ve got to finish it. That’s the way it goes. You’ve got to finish the deal.”

Which is true. Better than anyone, Toledo fans know not to take nice things for granted. But we’ll say it anyway: This was the Rockets’ biggest league win since their 35-27 victory against Miami (Ohio) in the 2004 league championship game.

For so many autumns, the Rockets had turtled when it mattered most — and never more than against the Huskies.

It didn’t matter that Toledo regularly recruited higher-rated classes than Northern Illinois. Or the Rockets were favored to win the MAC West five of the past seven seasons. In six of those years, the rivals met in November in a de facto MAC West title game. All six times, the Huskies won, tossing one promising UT season after another to the dogs. (Toledo beat NIU last year, but the Huskies were not a factor in the league race.)

For all the big offensive numbers and early-season wins — Toledo is 32-2 in league games in September and October the past eight seasons — the Rockets were not a a championship program, in name or otherwise.

In this game, they made a big move to change that. They accomplished what some least expected by accomplishing exactly what was expected of them.

Most impressive is the Rockets were good — and composed — enough to overcome the kind of potential game-changing swings that undermined them in past seasons.

Anyone with a passing handle on the recent history of this rivalry surely wondered if it would all come crashing down.

It felt like one of those nights. Think back to the goal-line sequences in the first half (not to mention the blocked punt in the fourth quarter). The Huskies found a way to make something out of nothing. Toledo conjured nothing out of something.

The something for the Huskies came on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line late in the first quarter. The visitors called a straight-ahead run right into Toledo’s waiting arms, but 220-pound running back Tre Harbison somehow escaped the wrap of safety Josh Teachey and bounced out for a tying touchdown.

The nothing for Toledo came two series later on a Woodside dive into the end zone. A play after tossing an 89-yard pass to Diontae Johnson, Woodside ran for what appeared a 10-yard score. But a replay review showed he was stripped inside the 1. Huskies ball.

It was a two-touchdown swing and the Huskies then pulled ahead 14-10 with a too-easy touchdown drive after intermission. But rather than that mental wall closing in on them, the Rockets responded with consecutive touchdown drives. They finished with a cool 527 yards against the league’s best defense.

At long last, the Rockets looked every bit the part of a championship team.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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